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great debate: henry clay, stephen a. douglas, and the compromise that preserved the union." this is about 45 minutes. after >> good afternoon, everyone. thanks, dan. at a certain also want to exten, my thanks to the "washington post" library of congress and the other sponsors of this presy terrific festival in previous years. my wife and i have sat in many, many audiences ng to other speakers, and it's a privilege for me to be talking to you today, and great to see so many people out here, hungry for books. toiling away in front of my computer, more electronics than live people. of course i'm wright about history. all the people i write about are
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dead. they can't talk back. it's nice to see live people. so, engrossed in the kind of things i and other writers here write about. i was very fortunate to have grown up in a home that was filled with books. i grew up in yonkers, new york, a suburb of new york city, with thousands of books, all filled with books. and as a little kid, the sense of books around me is one of my most indelible memories of childhood, and remembering also that as a tiny kid, starting to climb, i thought of the bookshelves from floor to ceiling as mountains that i could climb up, and my mother would find me five shelves up crying to get down again. and both my parents were
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fortunately great readers. my father was a self-educated working guy. he installed boilers and heating systems and my mother, on the other hand, had a degree in classics. she was a poet. she was a human rights activist. she worked with the american indians back in the 1950s. a frequent adversary of the federal government at that time. and she put me to bed at night reading things lick the odyssey and the illad. german mythology, and a wonderful, wonderful series of history books -- those who are my age may remember these, the landmark books by random house. they're absolutely terrific books, and i would love to see a comparable series done again today. and i must have read 100 of them.
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first they were read to me. then i read them myself. and there was really no turning back after that. i burrowed into whatever they published the book on, i read. and when i got a little older, i discovered in the 1950s, bruce compton's beautiful books on the civil war, and the battle on the potomac, which brought the war in lit gary fashion. but at the same time, my grandmother, who was born in 1882, and had grown up among men who had fought -- these men of her father's generation, fought in the civil war, including one -- her father, who had fought in the 88th new york,
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the famous regiment in the irish brigade and i'm here today because he ducked at the right moment at fredericksburg. but at any rate, when i was a little did, my grandmother entertained me with his war stories, and it was a while before i realized that the war actually occurred in the 1860s and hadn't just happened. so, at any rate, what i'm trying to say is how close history was in the environment that i grew up in, when we went on vacation, we stopped for every roadside marker on a historical subject. and taken to gettysburg at the age of nine and was rivetted. taken to little big horn in montana. places like that. and i grew up with the sense
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that the present is meaningless unless we understand the past that it came out of. and i think when -- i think what my mother did. she was a human rights worker with the american indians -- that history -- and a particular war -- i'm talking now primarily about the civil war -- really can't be divorced from the politics that produced it. i like walking across the gettysburg battle field today and so on. but, you're seeing history in a -- the war in a vacuum without understanding the politics behind it. and that in this country is primarily the politics of slavery going back to the beginning of the republic. and the book i'm primarily here
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to talk to you about today. america's great debate, book about the compromise of 1850, and the great ten-month-long debate that led up to it, is in a way the culmination of a group of three books which dan mentioned. one of them about the underground railroad. the first national history of the underground railroad since the 1890s. and of that, a book entitled, not very imaginatively, "washington. the making of the american capitol." but is primarily about how the politics of slavery shaped what became this city, that is to say, the politics that produced it, and the first congress, the politics that sustained the commitment to a potomac capitol rather than a three-state capitol in the 1890s and the experience of the slaves who
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built washington. and in different ways these books look at the ways in which slavery distorted and corrupted american politics, and more than politics in america. and in america's great debate, particularly the years -- the decades before the civil war. now, what were the origins of this particular book? now, i kept checking the weather today because, as you probably know, storms, thunderstorms were predicted for approximately this time originally. and i was prepared for this, for thunder out there at this moment, which it isn't cooperating. because i was going to evoke the thunderous voice of daniel webster, which i won't intend to try to imitate.
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i'm not at open -- when i was writing my underground railroad books i came across a speech he gave to a group of businessmen in syracuse, new york, in central new york state, hot bed of underground railroad abolitionist activity and this was in the weak of -- wake of the great compromise, and he ranted in a voice that resonated like thunder that he would perfectly see it to that slave law would be executed in every city of the north and that anyone who dared opposed it, were traitors, traitors, traitors, and i what startled by his ferocity. because webster, known as the god like daniel in his day, the great voice for decades, or
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believed to be the great voice of the antislavery north, thought, heed been misquoted or taken out of context, and surprisingly still happens in politics. but it was not in this quote, and webster made a lot of speeches in that winter, and he did everything he could to see that the law was enforced. and wondering what happened to webster led me to the great debate of 1850. which produced this stupendously ambitious compromise that the crafters believed would bring sectional peace in their time. fillmore, who was president when it was completed, sounds a little bit in his optimism like neville chairmanber lane coming bram from munich in 1938. i will say, parenthetically, that millard fill fillmore, probably the least warmly
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remembered -- well, one of -- presidents in our history. actually plays a very interesting plate -- politically deft roll in the compromise. so don't write him off. so in any wait, this is the story of the compromise -- i should say, to disstill it, it's a great story. it its an incredibly dramatic story filled, as dan said, with larger than life, fascinate can personalities. fillmore may not be one of the more fascinating ones, but extraordinary individuals. the longest debate in american political history. world class gridlock, and res summonses with today's gridlock?
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yes there are, though this book was not written as an argument about today's politics, but if you read it, you will draw some conclusions about the problems of compromise and what the kind of courage it takes to break gridlock and to compromise. it's a story -- the history, not just to divert it this way but history is full of cliffhangers. with the country going to war? nobody knew. could congress, anyone in congress, break the gridlock? nobody knew. the speechmaking was spectacular. guns were drawn on the floor of the senate. as far as we know. maybe some guys are packing today and would like to do it as well. can't speak to that. but i'm not going to read much
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at all but die want to read you a fragment of one of henry clay's magnificent speeches on the floor of the senate, introducing what would become the framework for the compromise, and clay was at this moment great, great senator from kentucky, one of the longest serving politicians in 19th 19th century american history. he has been inspired as a boy by hearing patrick henry in virginia, so he is a link with the founders and so on. at any rate, clay, who in effect drives this debate in the senate, often is called a slave driver or an overseer in the senate, but very few moments in american history when it was so that the country's fate hinged on one man0s ability to
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overkomrij edly held beliefs and to change minds almost on the spot. and the nation clay declared had become like some kind of monstrous industrial hell full of uproar, confusion, and menace. the states like 20 -- full blast in heat and passion and imtemperance, the disintegration of the union was an immediate possibility, he warned. he begged this fellow senators in the north and south to pause at the edge of the precipice before the leap is taken into the yawning abyss below. these guys didn't let 21-year-old staffers write their speakers. they read -- they wrote their own speeches. the country, as i said a moment ago, was much closer to war in
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1850 than we generally realize. the proximity of war is overwhelmed by the civil war when it finally occurs. but it the closer i looked at the political struggle of 1850, the more astonish id i was that at the country didn't disintegrate. congress was paralyzed across the south talk of secession was ripe. texas was raising troops to attack federal fourses in new mexico. journalist predicted that blood would soon be spilled in the halls of congress, and guns were drawn. in fact. and yet in the end, a solution, a compromise was found. the questions i began with were, how? how did congress make a paralyzed system actually work? and what would a close
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examination of the debates reveal about the costs of unyielding partisanship, and about the nature of compromise, and about the human qualities that it took to bridge a divide that many americans feared could never be crossed. and i should say, i also fell in love with the orator of the 1850s. the politicians of the time spoke per swayssively and provocatively and passionately in language that was so splendid it reached the level of literature. incidentally, all the speeches were available, down loadable for free, the library of congress. they make great reading, most of them. and thanks to the library of congress, they're making them available. the spin doctors argued and grammatically challenged messages that that today passes for political communication truly is pathetic and incoherent
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in comparison to the way political men spoke in 1850s. then congressmen and senators who as offer as not leaked college education, spoke from the bearest of notes or no notes at all for hours on end. three, four hours at a clip, and were confident that their colleagues and the public would understand them. in speeches that were pep erred with illusions to shakes spear, the bible. american history, british common law, classical literature, and then also said what they meant. men who believed in slavery said. so those who hated it. no matter how much odeum it attracted. and the nakedness of how people spoke politically at the time is very powerful when we -- in comparison to trying to parse what many people in our politics today seem to be avoiding.
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and i am -- that applies, frankly, across the board. not everyone. not to everybody. i'm not a cynic about politics. and indeed, reading the history of politics in this country, and the difficulty of making anything happen politically, it wasn't easier in 1850 than it is today. and it takes a lot of courage for people to enter this gigantic citywide nationwide cement mixer that is politics in america today and i have colassal respect for people who embark on that. and nothing in this leads me to disparage today's politicians, except i wish they wrote better english. so, anyway, quickly the background here, members of congress, all americans, were tormented by seemingly unanswerable questions.
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how were the new territories gained in the mexico war to be governed? could the country expand and survive or crack into a slew of unfriendly states that would fall prey to amibitions of foreign powers. this were all questions in 18 50s. how would the demands for slavery to be play indicated. southern africa were demanding the right to go to the pacific. calling for a state of south california. would the south secede if its demands weren't met? would the federal government fight back? nobody knew. could northerners be made to stem the flow of fugitive slaves? those weren't academic questions that were tearing the country apart in congress, and the senate, 15 free states matched evenly against 15 slave states, giving the south virtual veto
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power over any legislation that even remotely seemed to threaten slavery. california, californians, 200,000, people fled to california during the gold rush. very quickly they demand admission to the union, as a free state. which will tip the balance in the senate. abolitionists are battling slavery advocates over the expansion of slavery elsewhere in texas, and is the most likely ignition point, is claiming the entire vast new mexico territory, which is far vaster than the present-day state of new mexico, and threatening to carry slavery across it at gunpoint if necessary, raising troops to do so. and the civil war had begun in 1850, it wouldn't have been in charleston harbor. it would have been in santa fe.
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think about it. so, this is not entirely a cliff-hanger in that we do know, there was a compromise. in short, did it boil down to? california would be at played mitted as a free state. congress was one territorial government, and the rest of the mexican, no mention of slavery. congress would fix texas' western boundary where it is today, just east of new mexico, and if texas reel helping quiched its claims can the u.s. would pay off its states debt. texas was begging for a bailout. think of general motors. they took the money. another part of the compromise, the slaves freed in washington d.c. would be ended but slavery
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itself would be affirmed, and a new fugitive slave law would sharply increase punishment for anyone who aided run away slaves. the net effect of the compromise, in short, would be that it staved off wore for ten years. this is not a small accomplishment, given what was perceived as the impossible of changing it at the time. it was a decade that ultimately transformed the north so that when war finally came, it was a war that the north could actually -- was willing to fight and could actually win, which which was not true in 1850. parenthetically, i think i should say that a question i am typically asked is whether i think war was inevitable -- a civil war was inevitable. sluicely inevitable.
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it's perfectly clear, reading, listening to, closely reading the debate office 18 50, that representatives of the deep south, most of them -- those who were most influential, john c. calhoun, who died dramatically on n the middle mid of the deba. jefferson davis, his heir, and others, had mentally already seceded in 1850, and jefferson davis, i quote him in one of his many ringing interventions in this debate -- on behalf of secession -- made it clear that he was willing to be drafted any time as the leader for a new confederation of slaves that would protect slavery in 1850. and there was one possible
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peaceful way of terminating slavery and preventing civil war. it was available at any time from the founding of the country from the first congress in 1789 on, up to the civil war. it would have been expensive but only a fraction of the cost in money of the civil war, and at comparatively little, if any, cost in blood, and that was compensated emancipation. it was practiced -- well, it was advanced by some abolitionists and some other politics. it was an absolute nonstarter in the slave states. why? because slaves were reproducing property. there was no interest in it whatsoever. now prefer to fight a war than to emancipate slaves at a price.
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second, northerners, frankly, imbued with race simple of the time, did not want the north but it would free africa african-americans either. so this is an add dimension to what happened in 1861. so, the great story here -- i told you -- i've given you the punchline, told you what the compromise consisted of, basically, but the great story is how this happened. and it's a legislative tour deforce, full of extraordinary personalities. i mentioned henry clay already. daniel webster. stephen douglas who was called by journalists of the time a steam engine in britches. because of his ferocious
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dynamism. had these men, clay, webster, conservative wigs aligned with stephen a. douglas, a northern democrat, essentially, on behalf of compromise, on one side, against an extraordinary group of men who really defined the old term about -- president zachary taylor, old rough and ready, again, a president who is largely forgotten by most americans. played a fascinating role in that's events. much more interesting role morally, very courageous individual. a lifelong slave owner. had a plantation in louisiana but is absolutely dead set against, against, the expansion of slavery westward. very, very staunch in opposing clay's compromise because he
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figured it might permit the slavery to go westward. on the other hand, politically unfortunately clueless, john c. calhoun, who i mentioned. brilliantly termed by a great american historian as the marks of the master class. because he saw society in terms of labor and capital or labor and slave owner. ... slavery as a part of the american dream and defined it in those terms. they loved slavery, no matter what you may have heard somewhere, they thought slavery was great.
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the speeches are thick, thick with reams, celebration of how wonderful slavery is. not only for masters but for slaves. what a superb expression it is a biblical values and of the intentions of the founders and of modern science and modern -- and so on. and you have also a guy whothers wasted no time to delve intonto some of the personalities. thomas hart benton who was a a loud, bullying ferocious, frightening guy. missouri, and others adamant against the expansion of slavery, the nuances and complexities of some of the men are quite fascinating. you don't find everybody where
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you expect to on the playing board, and thomas hart benton, i'm not searching for the exact quote, but had the sin of an al gaiter and said he was fond of taking a morning scrub in the basement of the capitol, and it was used a cur ky comb used for a horse. he'd scrape upper body in the morning and lower part in the afternoon, and if there was somebody there to talk to, he said things, like, for example, sir, sir, if this brush merely touched you, you would cry with pain. he was a blunt and great figure. he had a gun pulled on him by henry foote, another one i want
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to talk about, but i can't, a blood rival from mississippi that has -- although a ferocious defender of slavery, but his unionism trumped his southern national ambition. henry is a very short, baldy -- and he at one point is so terrified by benton, benton's motions, he pulls out a gun and threatens to shoot him. anyway, these things are happening, and my -- i mean, this book is about the process of how clay, finally seconded by
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douglas, took over when they crashed and failed often known the wreck of the omnibus. the omnibus was the streetcar, the public bus of its day, and it failed, and douglas went on to engineer the passage of the component of clay's compromise in separate pieces with separate coalitions within the senate and helped to stage manage the passing of the same pieces in the house of representatives where he had members of the house acting essentially on his behalf and how this was done is a terrific story of inside politics, and of day-to-day drama, often as they said, day-to-day, week to week, nobody
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knew how it would come out. my desire was to take you into the world of these men, and take you on to the floor of the senate and the floor of the house, and inside the debate as they were happening so that you don't know anymore about what's happening, people who were participating in them, or than the public knew at the time. this was particularly a challenge with -- particularly a challenge with pro-slavery members, the defenders of slavery, who, as you might imagine, since the writing is about abolitionism and slavery and so on was morally a challenge to get into the heads and to a degree into their hearts and understand why they believed in what they believed in to a degree that could actually sway americans who were
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not southerners or slave owners. now, i've -- i absolutely want to take some questions. i got a sign of 10 minutes. i'm going to speed, speed through a couple of final remarks here, and throw away all kinds of wonderful antedotes i was going to tell you. simply to say, this is a story, finally, about compromise. compromise doesn't seem like something that's dramatic, but on the other hand, it took ten months to wring this compromise out, and it shows creative politics, the story -- the example of creative american politics at its best, politics in the hands of masters, and it shows how compromise has nothing to do with a friendly group hug
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whatsoever, and, you know, one hears all the time, people say why can't they just all get together? maybe you can do that over a beer, but that's not political compromise. it's brutal. it's costly. it leaves everyone wounded, clay, calhoun, webster all died within two years after this. webster, in particular, who i began with, i think i'll end with, was pivotal in bringing conservative, northern wigs around in support of clay's compromise, and he was destroyed politically by it, and this was not entirely selfless. his political call calculus didt work, but there was a political courage in it although his embrace of the fugitive slay law which none of us today can
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really honor, but at that moment, it took great political courage. the point is that if real compromise is going to be wrought, even the best must, perhaps contemplate falling on their source, and that these men, webster, others, were doing something much bigger than themselves to allow the union to survive, and they show us that the highest calling is not just to survive politically. there's much more i could say, but i wanted to take questions so let's do that now. thank you. [applause] >> thank you very much for your talk. i had a question about your encounters in your research with some of the dissenters to the
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compromise. people that either thought that it was odious to discuss compromise beyond slavery or people who just thought the compromise would not work. >> okay. i'll try to answer it briefly. the individual who with whom caused me to wrestle with was was a senator from new york state, and seward, lincoln's rival in 1860, you know he was then regarded as a republican conservative. in 1850, he was regarded as thee most radical man in the senate, and he had a heroic record as an anti-slavery record in new york stay, and seward, particularly famous for articulating in the senate, the idea of a higher law, there's a higher moral law
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than the mere laws of men and that required him to oppose compromise because the compromise included an acceptance of slavery, something he could not vote for, and, you know, my heard is with seward. he was the most modern man. he could walk out of that debate and sit down with us today and know what we're talking about in america today, and he'd like it, you know? yet, he was very much on the fringe of his moment, and while, if i were there in 1850, think, go, bill, you know? i also believe that the compromise is imperative at the time because the north was not ready to fight a civil war. it was not militarized. it was not radicalized in the way that the deep south already had become i so i think there'sa
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paradox here and confronts historians with the danger of not imposing the present on the past. hi. >> hi, i'm a graduate of university of buffalo where we remember millard philmore, and we remember him as the guy on the wrong sigh of every issue he ever took a side on. could you talk a little bit about millard philmore, and how did we get to this side of compromise to bleeding kansas and john brown? >> again, i'll try to be very brief. we could be here for years answering that. i mean, a word about fillmore. within the context, if you believe the compromise was necessary, as i do, and that its long term effects in helping ironically, partly by the passage of the fugitive slave
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law that radicalized northern whites who couldn't care less about slaves and slavery in the south, but they hated the idea of their own rights being taken away by being requested to collaborate with slave hunters in the north. if you believe the compromise was ultimately balanced and a good and necessary thing, fillmore's support therefore was wise. his record after that is doubtful. in 1864 he supported mcclellan. what happened between 1850 and 1861, quick tour. bleeding kansas, kansas-nebraska bill, steven a. doug los, the political compromise of the bill, and it's brilliant. if you want to know why steven a. douglas was known for his political brilliance, read about him in 1850. that's when he became the great
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steven a. douglas. now, he was forever in slow and rapid after wards because he in effect by promoting the kansas-nebraska act years later, and essentially ofuated what had been achieved in the compromise of 1850. that, too, helped radicalize northerners. the blood in kansas that came out of the kansas-nebraska act helped radicalize northerners. john brown, harper's raid and other abolitionist activity radicalized northerners, and so it would certainly be wrong to suggest the compromise all by itself somehow was all that mattered in that decade. these other things were partly offshoots of it, but, again, war would have come in 1850 without it. hi. >> i was wondering if it's tough
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to deal with hypotheticals, but if you could comment on compromise would have been different or would have happened if james polk had run for president, run for a second term and won? >> wow. i have to say, that's too hypothetical for me to take on. i mean, sometimes these questions are fun. let's say -- i'm not sure i -- i'm not sure i have a really interesting answer for that. i could answer it, but i like for it to be interesting. i think would he have won? i mean, that's one question. i mean, by no means certain that he would have won. there was huge opposition to the war, justly so. it was a terrible war, although, here we are today with the nation we are because james polk wageed a terrible war and
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acquired everything from texas to california, and, you know, we can let that keep us awake at night too, and the disgust with the war and therefore the does -- disgust with democratic policy, and taylor, a great candidate, but he was -- well, like other presidents, even at present day, he said as little as possible about himself. he was everything to everyone. he -- i don't think he released his taxes. [laughter] and i'm skeptical of polk. i wouldn't have been a walk-in for polk, and had he been -- had he won, it would have been a very troubled presidency. on the other hand, he was a strong pro-slavery man, and it would have been harder to
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achieve compromise. all right. >> we have time for one more question. >> thank you for your speech here today. i would like to talk about a statement made by frederick douglass, one of the former slaves who found freedom in the underground railroad and got assistance from the abolitionists up there up north. he said that he found that some of the slave masters who were or claimed to be the most christian were some of the most severe with their treatment and punishment towards the slaves. my question is with some of the individuals that you researched, how did they reconcile god and slavery in the building of the christian nation? >> this is a great question. there's so much to say on this subject. i'll try to say it little and concisely. as i suggested earlier, you can go into these debates and read
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what they said. i quote it that defense at length because it's important to understand what slave owners and what defenders of slavery had in their head. they thought they were moral people mostly, and there was an entire industry of parsing the bible for language that either defended or failedded to criticize slavery. a great deal. i mean, for example, jesus never explicitly condemned it, so it must be in accordance with the teachings of jesus. there was an abolitionist reading of the bible too. they were counter readings, but there's much, much on this. by the way, i recommend to everyone a book that's coming out soon, henry wincheck who wrote a book about washington and its slaves is bringing out a
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book next month about jefferson and its slave addressing not jefer's religiosity because he didn't have any, but jefferson, the way jefferson who considered himself a enlightened man, how he dealt with his slaves. there's a lot of new things coming up in that book. thank >> this event was part of the 2012 national book festival in washington, d.c. for more information visit >> visit to watch any of the programs you see here online. type the author or book title in the search bar on the upper left side of the page and click search. you can share anything you see on easily by clicking shar t
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